Indian Kashmir shuts down to protest military court verdict

January 31, 2014 - 1:13:28 pm

SRINAGAR: Large parts of Indian Kashmir shut down on Friday to protest a military court verdict last week that exonerated five army officers involved in the killing of five civilians 14 years ago.

Most shops and businesses were closed and public transport halted in the main city of Srinagar and other areas of the restive region after separatist groups called a one-day strike over the court's decision.

Hundreds of police and paramilitary forces were patrolling the normally congested old parts of Srinagar ahead of protests called by the region's chief cleric and expected to start after Friday prayers.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who also heads the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of separatist organisations, urged Kashmiris to "raise our voice against the verdict", in a statement this week. 

Showkat, who gave only one name, said he had shuttered his shop in the old part of Srinagar for the strike, but doubted whether justice for the dead civilians would eventually prevail. 

"India is telling us again and again that there will be no justice for Kashmir people," said Showkat standing outside his shop.

"We keep protesting but no one listens," he added. 

The five civilians were killed in Pathribal village, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, days after the massacre of 35 Sikhs in the remote village of Chattisinghpora in March 2000. 

The army claimed the victims were "foreign militants", accusing them of being responsible for the massacre. 

But a subsequent probe by India's top investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, described the killings as "cold blooded murder", paving the way for a trial in a military court held behind closed doors.

The five soldiers were however cleared last Thursday as "the evidence recorded could not establish a prime facie case against any of the accused persons", according to an army statement.

In its verdict, the court did not dispute the CBI's findings that the victims were civilians but it added that they were killed during an operation "based on specific intelligence".

The decision has been denounced by rights groups and Kashmiri separatists and fuelled anger in the already tense region.

Security forces, particularly paramilitaries and army personnel, in Indian Kashmir are routinely accused by human rights groups of using excessive force and torture. 

The local government was preparing a "legal recourse" to try to reopen the case, but it is unclear how this could be achieved since the military court handling the case was outside of civilian jurisdiction and scrutiny.

Kashmir, a picturesque Himalayan region, is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.

About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or for its merger with Pakistan. 

The fighting has left tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, dead. (AFP)